Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro’s war-set thriller doesn’t unveil its grand conceit until about 20 minutes in, using nearly all of its first act to set up pieces it will inevitably knock back down and introducing character traits it will dismantle during the rest of its mostly interminable runtime. Set in the sprawling desert of North Africa, the film opens three months into Marine Mike Stevens’ (Armie Hammer) latest tour of duty, hiding out on the top of a salt flat along with his best pal Tommy Madison (Tom Cullen, saddled with a “thick-accented Southerner soldier” stereotype that gives him little to work with beyond drawing out his r’s), waiting for a long-promised target.
While it’s clear from the jump that Mike isn’t here to play games — “I’m not here to play games, man,” he actually tells Tommy at one point — the second there’s even the slightest hitch in their mission, he bails. It’s not a good sign of what’s to come.
Pushed further into the desert, Mike and Tommy make a break for a local village in hopes of lining up a safe extraction point, buffeted on one side by a series of sandstorms and the other by the looming threat of the same terrorist cell they were attempting to take out. It’s bad enough, but things get significantly worse when the pair wander into a literal minefield, and a somewhat inevitable (yet still nail-biting) tragedy leaves Mike alone, resting one military-issue boot on top of a mine. It’s a hell of a way to trap your lead character in one spot, and Guaglione and Resinaro’s script neatly adds to the already huge stakes by effectively stranding Mike for the foreseeable future.
Those early complications are the smartest, piling on believable problems in a tension-filled narrative, one soon deflated by a dizzying array of personal revelations that take “Mine” away from its most compelling elements. The “one character, one place, one terrible situation” conceit has been mined plenty before, from Ryan Reynolds’ unnerving turn in the literally boxed-in “Buried” to Blake Lively’s unexpected shark-infested hit “The Shallows,” and “Mine” sets up its own spin on the subgenre before veering away from it in favor of simply adding more. Films like “Buried” and “The Shallows” benefit from less, but “Mine” never learned that lesson.
Mike’s mental state quickly devolves, and even a series of somewhat heartening breaks (including a gnarly sandstorm that comes with a silver lining, as it pushes some necessary tools closer to the kneeling Mike) can’t keep him from spiraling further into what’s clearly an already ill subconscious. While “Mine” wisely opens in the middle of Mike’s mission, the film’s later acts routinely flip back to his civilian life, explaining his fraught relationship with his girlfriend Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) and a destructive pattern of behavior that seems to have sprung mostly from his no-good dad (Geoff Bell).
While the psychological exploration of a character stuck in such a horrific, isolating situation is necessary (and Hammer seamlessly shifts between pain of every stripe), “Mine” is so padded with personal revelation after personal revelation that it actively diminishes both their impact and the power of the trauma at hand.
That’s to say nothing of the ham-fisted interactions to come, as “Mine” parades a steady stream of supporting characters (some real, some maybe not so real) in front of the ailing Marine. “This is a minefield! Full of mines!,” Mike screams at the first person who appears to help him, a forehead-slapper of a line that only hints at the bizarre conversations to come. “Mine not mine,” the desert dweller (Clint Dyer, listed just as “The Berber” in official materials) tells Mike, before extolling some trash advice that sounds as if it was ripped out of a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book written in broken English (“You need to make next step”), before shuffling off to who knows where.
For a film that’s built on such a banger of a premise, “Mine” never leaves Mike alone for too long, robbing it of the tension and terror that made Mike’s early solitary moments hit so hard. If you’re going to strand a guy alone in the desert, strand a guy alone in the desert.
At least there’s said desert, and Guaglione and Resinaro make fine use of their location (it’s hardly of the “its own character” mold, but it’s a striking place to set a film), and Sergi Vilanova’s cinematography captures the desolation of the stretching landscape, playing up Mike’s isolation with ease. The in-between moments when “Mine” is simply a guy stuck in the desert, trying to use his own wits to save himself, is when the film is at its very best, but that’s precisely what makes “Mine” such a disappointment: those moments are the in-between ones, not the bulk of the film.
Around the film’s halfway point, Mike discovers a secret video on his phone, recorded by Jenny as a way of bolstering his spirits when they will inevitably flag. She couldn’t have possibly dreamed of the situation that Mike finds himself in, but as she promises that she understands why he needs to fight off his demons before he can come back, the film keeps leaning in on every bad part of his life that’s brought him to this moment, not the literal bomb ready to detonate under his foot. The demons aren’t outside, they’re tangible and touchable, and when “Mine” forgets that, the entire thing fizzles right out.
“Mine” will hit limited release and VOD on Friday, April 7.